Thursday, December 03, 2009

Book Review: Depending on Time

Depending on Time by Jennie Savage
Safle, 2009
Paperback, 152 pages

Cardiff, the capital of Wales, has a compact city center but an abundance of 19th-century shopping arcades. These Victorian and Edwardian passages are memorable and give the city a strong sense of place, something that isn't particularly embraced by most contemporary developments (HOK Sport's Millennium Stadium, Wales Millennium Centre by Capita Architecture) that opt to create objects rather than spaces within the urban fabric. Artist Jennie Savage uses another one of these developments, the recent construction of the massive Saint David's Shopping Center (SD2) -- covering almost a third of the city center -- as the impetus for "The Arcades Project: A 3D Documentary," of which this book is a part. Savage explains that she wanted to "explore Cardiff's Victorian arcades in light of this new 'globalized' space; to see them as two bookends of consumer culture through the prism of architectural manifestation." SD2 appropriates the parti of the old arcades but is unable to capture their spatial appeal, an indication of changes in consumer culture as much as of architectural style.

"The Arcades Project" consists of a short film ("A Million Moments," shown as part of a site-specific intervention in one of the arcades), ten audio walks, and the book. The last is a combination of audio transcripts accompanied by visual imagery, handwritten notes, and sketches. The film and the audio documentary are included with the book, though all three point to the fact that absorbing all or part is not a replacement for the actual experience of Cardiff's arcades. All of this output can be seen as a research project layered upon the actual place, generated from people's movements and activities within the city's spaces. My last visit to Cardiff in 2000 has been enhanced by the book, though one need not know the place intimately to appreciate Savage's analysis of the city's situation.

The author acknowledges the influence of Walter Benjamin's famous Arcades Project, evident in the project's title, though she admits it ends there: the 3D Documentary does not address Benjamin's seminal text, it uses archive material and interviews to examine the shifts in architecture and commerce. The interview transcripts do the most towards instilling a sense of place in the reader. They consist of quotes from shopkeepers, shoppers, writers, architects, and the SD2 developers, a diverse assemblage of voices that would ideally have predated SD2's construction to influence its design and ensure that as many contested interests are met. Of course this would be at odds with the developer's raison d'etre, maximum profit from minimal effort. That said, developers cannot exclusively dictate the shape of the urban fabric, but local governments can certainly cater to them. SD2 is indicative of the power of globalized commerce, good and bad qualities both. As an artwork, the various pieces of Savages's 3D Project are about exploring a place rather than creating a tangible artifact. As executed, and if the book can be seen as a final document in the project, what we learn can influence our thinking about other places, even though the project is about a very particular place.